Joanne Malar is the most decorated Pan Am Games competitor in any sport. However, the event’s meaning to the Canadian swimming great is less about medals – 19 across four Pan Ams between 1991 and 2003 – and more about memories accrued during her competitive career.

With the games returning to Canada for the first time since 1999 when Malar pulled off her second individual medley double, it’s hit close to home for the Hamilton native.

“I just think it’s so great for Canadian swimmers in particular to get that opportunity to have the hometown crowd, in a beautiful facility’s that just been built,” Malar said in a recent interview from Summerland, B.C., where she lives with her spouse Delano Ducheck and three sons Desmond, age 7, Mateo, 5 and Ary, 2.

“It’s not often that we get to host events of this calibre here in Canada. We’re going to have our ‘A’ swimmers there and they know where they need to get to with the Rio Olympics being a year out. It’s a really good gauge – ‘can I make the jump to world class, top three in the world, top 10 in the world?’

“The Pan Am Games have a dear, dear spot in my heart,” Malar added. “It was a big competition and a multi-sport competition that athletes really looked forward to. Often, the big swim competitions, we’re on our own. With the Pan Am Games and/or Commonwealth Games, there’s not only that games village environment which is fun, but it also gets you ready for that whole Olympic experience. There’s a lot of excitement and distractions and challenges in that village environment, depending on what country’s it’s in.

“It was high-performance but sort of lower pressure to excel, so it was a really good combination for us. We always looked forward to it because we had great friendships with the Brazilians, the Argentinians, the Mexican swimmers.”

‘Felt very lucky to be Canadian’

Malar, who now coaches at the Summerland Orca Swim Club, can mark her progression throughout her teens and young adulthood by her Pan Am sojourns. She was a 15-year-old about to go into Grade 11 when she went to her first in Havana in August 1991. She earned five medals, including four silvers (two in IM, two with relay teams). She also learned a lesson that one could never get in a classroom.

“I learned a lot about the world travelling with my swimming,” she recalled. “[Cuban president] Fidel Castro was there when I won my medal in Cuba. He came on the pool deck with his whole entourage.

“It was something meeting the Cuban people and seeing how kind and generous they were, and finding out later that they had been rationed for months leading up to the competition so that the athletes would have enough meat and chicken in the [athletes’ village] cafeteria, and that the general population were building our homes to live in.

“You realize that a lot of the world does not live how Canadians live, and I felt very lucky to be Canadian and see how well-loved we are. I learned at a young age that Canadians are welcome almost everywhere.”

— Joanne Malar

In 1995 in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Malar pulled off her first Pan Ams IM double and added a 200-m backstroke bronze and three silvers in relay. That experience also tested her capacity to rest and recover between heats and finals – something every swimmer needs to learn.

“Every experience was so different,” said Malar, who was 19 years at that time. “In Argentina, we were kind of in an old hotel. From there to the pool it was a hour, hour-and-a-half, each way. We swam heats in the mornings and finals at night. Usually you try to eat and take a nap in between. We would have about 30 minutes after getting back.”

Four years later at the Pan Am Pool in Winnipeg, Malar had what she calls “the best swim I ever had” when she set what was then a games and Canadian record of 4:38.46 in the 400 IM.

“It’s usually hard to take more than a second off and I dropped four or five seconds off my best time and set a Canadian record. The only time it’s been bettered is during that stretch when everyone used those suits that are now illegal. So in my mind it still sort of stands.” (Tanya Hunks set the Canadian record of 4:35.84 at the 2009 world championships in Rome)

“That was also a great experience because my parents were able to drive down for it,” she added.

Malar retired following the 2000 Olympics, but launched a comeback in May 2003. She captured one final Pan Ams gold in 200 IM that August in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, although the bid for a last hurrah did not yield a spot on Canada’s Olympic team for Athens the following year. More than a decade later, she’s aware that just going a fourth time was a privilege.

“The Pan Ams was always sort of the friendly games,” said Malar, who was a relay teammate of national team veteran Audrey Lacroix in Santo Domingo a dozen summers ago. “Great competition, and I’m one of the few who got to go to four consecutive games. I feel really lucky. It’s such an amazing international competition.”

The pool competition at the Pan Am Games is set for July 14-18 and the Parapan Am Games swimming events are slated for Aug. 8-14.

 

Source : Swimming Canada